Are Games Art?

Here’s something I wrote about games as art, eons ago, when somebody on the Internet made me all mad. Someday I may finish it, and update its bunch of busted links, but for now I offer it up in rough form, in honor of the Art History of Games (#AHoG), happening this week here in Atlanta. Please consider this a work in progress.

Who said games can’t be art?

Famously, Roger Ebert did. Back in 2007, in a response to comments decrying his earlier opinion that video games are not art, Ebert wrote, “Games may not be Shakespeare quite yet, but I have the prejudice that they never will be, and some gamers are prejudiced that they will.”

Last week, film critic Devin Faraci of published an editorial adding his arguments to the ongoing debate. Faraci’s editorial came after his comments in a news item on a possible Shadow of the Colossus film triggered a debate (on Twitter) about whether or not video games are an art form. Faraci says video games aren’t art, and the Internet is full of people who disagree with him.

I disagree with him, too, but I was more interested in understanding his argument. Aside from Ebert’s opinion, I’d never read a serious argument for why video games shouldn’t be considered art. Ebert’s argument is concerned with both form and quality—he says games do things art shouldn’t and that they aren’t much good, besides. Faraci’s argument is completely categorical—he says games are not an art form because they do not do what he says art does.

Chuck Wendig, who’s both a brilliant writer and a clever game designer, wrote his response to Faraci’s editorial right away, but I’m not completely on board with it. Chuck’s written a host of short stories (one was even published at CHUD, I think) and designed Hunter: The Vigil, so you know he has some experience with games and the arts. But in his response Chuck merely disagrees with Faraci and Ebert.

Here, I’m going to make my case for why some games are art.

The Arguments Against

If we pull back, we can make out to three main arguments about games as art:

1. Games are not “high art” because they have not yet produced an important work.

2. Games cannot be art because they do things art shouldn’t do.

3. Games cannot be art because they do not do what art does.

In all honesty, I think Ebert’s argument might be a dare. If so, he wouldn’t be alone. Designers throughout the video-game industry, like Warren Spector (Toon, Deus Ex) and Tony Huynh (Fracture), have been trying for years to provoke the first Shakespeare-quality classic out of the form. Warren Spector wrote:

We’re the only medium that says to itself, “This is what you must be and all you will ever be.”

That kind of thinking makes me mad. What about other words, other values? What about “challenge”? What about “compelling”? What about “discomfort”? What about “enlightening” and “thought-provoking”? [via The Escapist]

Building on Spector’s argument, Huynh wrote:

It heartens me that the video game industry has come so far and so fast on the technology front, but we cannot neglect our responsibility to our audience to move them to think. We cannot simply dismiss Roger Ebert’s criticism, but instead we need to take it as a challenge and use our medium to make our audience more “cultured, civilized and empathetic”.

We’ll ignore, for now, that Shakespeare and Dickens both wrote for money and both produced works that weren’t considered consensus classics when they debuted. I don’t know if Bioshock will be Hamlet in fifteen years, but neither do you. The point is to keep moving forward.

Faraci’s argument is broken up throughout his editorial, shown to us on a kind of mock walkthrough in which he tells us, the reader, what we think and, then, how we are wrong. In this weekend’s letters column, though, he reduces his argument to something more quotable: “Games are either not art because they are games or they [are] art but not really games. That’s my argument.”

In other words, games are not art because he said games and art are different.

What Is Art?

Ebert’s argument, often quoted since he wrote it in 2005, is that game’s have an inherent flaw:

“There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control. […]

But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.”

Ebert: “I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist.” Later: “Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.” Then: “the real question is, do we as their consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them?”

My dictionary’s definition of the “arts” includes languages and history, as does Wikipedia, which also includes invention as an art form.

From Faraci’s editorial:

“Let’s say it’s something purposefully created or presented with the intention of communicating an idea or feeling. That’s really broad, probably broader than I actually feel comfortable with, but it’ll do for the purposes of this piece. It’s also value neutral, which is very important. The thing doesn’t have to be created or presented well in order to be art, just purposefully.”

In What Is Art?, Leo Tolstoy gives us this:

The business of art lies just in this,—to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible. Usually it seems to the recipient of the truly artistic impression that he knew the thing before but had been unable to express it.

Okay, then.

Ayn Rand (since Devin mentioned Bioshock), in her essay “Art and Cognition,” wrote:

Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important.

We all have our biases. Faraci says he needs to deny games art status because I need art to retain meaning and not just be ‘stuff I like.'”

Almost nothing that comes into contact with humans stays one thing for long.

If we’re chasing definitions, we’ve got to consider these complications:

  • Shifting Boundaries. Over time, the line between art and craft shifts around. A handmade chair from Colonial Virginia, built just for sitting, becomes art by surviving beyond its era. It drifts from the farmhouse to the museum, from an example of craftsmanship to an artifact of period style, from one category to another, as it soaks up meaning and associations over the years.
  • Porous Boundaries. If the music in the game is art and the painted textures are art, but the game mechanics aren’t, then the finished work, taken as a whole, as the artists intended, must straddle some borders.  The character skins and environmental textures are over there with the Paintings while the orchestral score goes over there in the Music section. Individual works must be able to lay across multiple categories, which means the borders between categories aren’t solid.
  • Resolution. What’s the resolving power of the instrument we’re using to measure works and assign them to categories? How high-res is our image? How many categories are we allowed — how many different arts are there? Ten? Five? Are sonnets and novels in the same category? Movie reviews and haikus?

What value do we get from lumping these things together rather than distinguishing between them?

Re: Intent (Ronald D. Moore wrote about the Battlestar Galactica finale: “The image of the bird was just [that] — an image. […] I still don’t know exactly what it meant. I don’t want to.”)

The only detailed and thorough definition of art I can fathom would be a list of all the works I consider art — that the list would be almost worthless to you and is not forthcoming is part of the point.

Maybe video games are different. They are, after all, interactive. But this point is superficial, in fact erroneous. All literature (here broadly defined to include movies, television, and the other photographic media, and popular as well as highbrow literature) is interactive; the better it is, the more interactive. Literature when it is successful draws the reader into the story, makes him identify with the characters, invites him to judge them and quarrel with them, to experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own.

What Are Games?

In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein asks us to define games:

Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games.” I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games'”—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. […] Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.—Are they all ‘amusing?’ Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players?

What is game design? The Game Developer’s Choice Awards describe their award for Best Game Design as “including, but not limited to, gameplay mechanics, playability, play balancing, and level design.”

Reiner Knizia says, “In America, the theme is seen as the game whereas in [Europe] the game mechanics and the game system are seen as the game.”

(And, uh, by the way, some people do consider examples of actual chess-playing to be art. On this, Kasparov and Marcel Duchamp agree. Think of it as an improvised dance between competing partners, maybe.)

I asked Devin, A game cannot be ‘something purposefully created or presented with the intention of communicating an idea or feeling?'” Devin’s answer: “no.”

“If it continues stagnating in content, then no it will never be considered as high an art-form as film or music. But I think people are starting to recognize that games can do a whole lot more. And again, we come back to the mechanic-is-the-message. There has to be ways that the gameplay mirrors the message; that it’s not just set in some cool setting, but actually has some gameplay that has an impact on how the player thinks about a particular issue in a meaningful way,” Seggerman stated. [“How Games Can Change Your Life”]

Faraci asked, “Further, is there a narrative game that uses no editing at all — no flashbacks, no cut scenes, no load screens that divide areas, nothing?”

First, this: Games can be art. I am unclear what jurisdiction Ebert and Faraci have to revoke (it’s too late to deny) art-hood from games, but there I have exerted equal power over the medium of games, this time in their favor. As some couples are married in some states and not in others, some games are art in some places and not others.

Finally, maybe most importantly, there’s this: In improv we are instructed to avoid the word “No.” Saying “no” shuts down the show, puts drag on the play, and obstructs new ideas. Pre-categorizing any work, whether it’s a painting or a film or a game, is a kind of “No.” It denies the new work. More to the point, it almost never works. How much new art is created out of the impulse to say, “Oh, yeah? What about this?” How much new art is created out of a desire to bust categories and test boundaries?

No border lasts. Nations fold, coastlines fatten, rivers dry, rockets defy gravity’s definitions. I don’t know if Laika’s an art object, but we get more art from leaving the question open, and closing it won’t work anyway.


  1. Betsy
    February 5, 2010

    I firmly believe that games can be art — and at least some computer games are. Certainly the narrative of Portal is compelling, creative, … artistic. Of course, I subscribe to a more read/write conception of art than some. But still…I think if someone’s going to condemn games as “not art,” it comes from either an insular conception of art or a lack of knowledge of games, or both.

  2. Queex
    February 5, 2010

    I think this rebuts Ebert’s argument more eloquently than I could manage:

    Games as a medium have inherent qualities that are seldom found in other media; you can only say that these qualities disqualify games from being art if you choose to define art as something that cannot possess those qualities- begging the question.

    We’ve been playing a lot of Ghost Stories recently- I wouldn’t necessarily call it art but I defy you to find any Hollywood film made over the last 10 years that’s anywhere near as tense.

  3. Carl Klutzke
    February 6, 2010

    I don’t know how helpful this is, but the best working definition of art that I’ve been able to establish for my own purposes is this: Art is the mechanism by which a culture propagates its values.

    By this definition, something is art if it functions as art, regardless of why or how it was created. I see no reason why a game could not qualify.

    (By Ebert’s definition, a transcript of an interactive fiction game is art, but the game itself is not. For that matter, a play or a movie is not art, only the scripts from which they were created. Ridiculous.)

  4. Jonathan Walton
    February 6, 2010

    Yes, how can we have produced Shakespeare already, if Shakespeare’s status took hundreds of years to cement?

    I would argue that we already have great works that’ll stand the test of time, like Ico or Dogs in the Vineyard. Will they end up with Shakespearean status? I hope so, but it’s too early to say.

  5. Trip
    February 7, 2010

    Art is like pornography — I can’t really define it, but I know it when I see it.

    I tend to lean towards a more inclusive attitude myself, but I think stretching the definition to include (for instance) a particularly competitive game of chess is probably not helping the cause. For one thing, it muddies the waters — is the game itself art, no matter who plays it? Or is a game only raised to the level of art by a particularly skillful interaction with it on the part of the player(s)?

    Regardless, I think the biggest challenge to games-as-art is their ephemeral nature. I can read novels that are hundreds of years old just by reaching for my bookshelf. I can flip “Birth of a Nation” into my Netflix queue and be watching it on my Xbox (ah, irony!) in under sixty seconds. On the other hand — just as an example from real life — me and a buddy tried to play Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, a game that’s only five years old, on our 360s just last night, and it was nearly impossible (it’s an original Xbox game). In ten or twenty years, will anyone but a few packrats even still have the equipment to play Bioshock? Never mind that by that time there will also be a dozen sequels, reboots, and reimaginings.

    Anyway, here’s the biggest shortcoming I see in your article: I think if you’re going to mount a case for games as art, you need to be able to name and defend a few examples that qualify.

  6. Will Hindmarch
    February 7, 2010

    Trip, you used the phrase “raised to the level of art,” but is art necessarily something elevated?

    Also, for what it’s worth, I replayed Chaos Theory on my Xbox 360 last year without any trouble at all — totally worth the time I spent on it.

    But does art have to be timeless? If a painting degrades or a sculpture erodes in the weather, does that mean that it’s not art? Does that mean that it wasn’t art before it degraded, just because it can be potentially unreachable later?

    You’re quite right that I haven’t gotten to specific examples yet, in this piece. That’s in part because I’m planning to address the argument that there is not standout work among games that is considered art by outsiders. Not yet. For every video game you can single out, there are plenty of otherwise-well-informed critics who will mock you for being moved by a toy. The argument for games as art then rapidly becomes an argument about whether these two or three works cited are art, and that argument is less interesting to me. Or was, at the time of this writing.

  7. JDCorley
    February 8, 2010

    I think that interactivity is a bit of a red herring here. Some things undeniably art are undeniably interactive. But even if we say all interactive things are not art, there’s still a big logical step that’s missing here. Sure, in such a situation, games would not be art, but play still might be. By using the tool of the game, we create imaginative material, a performance – play – that says something we desire to say.

  8. Trip
    February 10, 2010

    Will, these “what is art” discussions are entertaining in a dorm-room bull-session kind of way (obviously enough so that it drew me in to posting), and can even help one to hone one’s own opinions on the matter. But after contemplating various replies to your post, I realized that the only one that makes any sense to me is, ultimately, if it’s art to you, it’s art. What else matters?

    My initial response was from the point-of-view of, here are some things I see that will make acceptance of games as art by mainstream critics of other, more established media difficult. But ultimately, who cares about acceptance by critics, especially by critics outside your medium? In any case, I don’t think you’ll ever convert someone with an argument involving dictionary definitions. You convert them by saying, “Ah, but have you played *this*?”, handing them the controller, and walking away.

  9. Will Hindmarch
    February 11, 2010

    What games would you, personally, have a critic sit down with, Trip?

  10. Saturday, February 27th… « Old School Rant
    February 27, 2010

    […] Are games art? Well worth the read… I have a weakness for writings that utilize quotations. […]

  11. toaster_pimp
    April 2, 2012

    the question is, how do we define “videogame?” If we define its purpose as being “to entertain,” then the question is “can something that has as it’s purpose entertainment be art?”

    So, say, can a film primarily seek to entertain its audience, but also be art?

    And then we see that the real question is just straight up “what is art?”

    (before going on, let me define “to entertain” as “to captivate one’s attention in an agreeable or pleasant manner”)

    So can art also entertain? Can a work that has entertainment as its primary purpose be art? Can a work have more than one purpose simultaneously, so to entertain but also to be art?

    See, it is all going to come down to how you define “videogame” (as different from say, a utility program like excel, which also uses the medium of “digital interaction”), and how you define “art.”

    Now the “what is art” discussion has been going on pretty much forever, but i think what is more important is to figure out how we define “videogame.” Is it defined by some set of techniques, or tools, or rules? Is it defined by its purpose or some set of purposes? is it defined by some message? some aesthetic style?

    Anyways, since this discussion is about “are videogames art”, then perhaps we are all using some specific definition of “videogame.” But from the above posts, i’m not sure we all agree on one way of understanding what “videogame” means.

  12. toaster_pimp
    April 2, 2012

    here’s wat google thinks:

    vid·e·o game
    A game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or display.

    A form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.

    Engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.

    Using that sort of definition, i think we can have a meaningful discussion.

  13. toaster_pimp
    April 2, 2012

    just to be clear, when you say “games” do you mean videogames? or also board games, tabletop games, and such?

  14. toaster_pimp
    April 2, 2012

    But i think it is a question of PURPOSE.

    A definition of art, whether it include Truth or Beauty or Emotion or Representation or any combination thereof, tends to see art as having these things as its primary purpose.

    The Purpose of art is to represent some aesthetic form. The Purpose of art is to communicate some emotion, or truth. The purpose of art is to represent some object or idea, in an aesthetically pleasing way.

    So, the question “are games art” is twofold. “what is art” of course, but perhaps more importantly to this discussion: “what is the purpose of a game?”

    Now i would say a game has as its purpose to entertain.

    So the question then is, can ART have more than one purpose? Can you have some use of a medium that both entertains AND is an aesthetic representation of say Happiness?

    I think yes. Consider a Shakespearean play. Most would consider A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be Art, and yet it also has as its purpose entertainment (engaging interest), and also a narrative, so the purpose of telling a story, and is a comedy, so the purpose of making the audience laugh. And it also deals with many truths, about human nature and the world and such, and it uses all sorts of aesthetic techniques.

    What i’m saying is, i think something can be ART without having as its primary purpose to BE ART.

    So like, a portrait by Renoire is considered art, but when he made it it was probably cuz some rich dude wanted to see a likeness of himself up on the wall (no photography right). And Renoir painted it not because (or at least certainly not only because) he wanted to create some aesthetic expression of something or other, but because he wanted to sell the painting so he could get some money for living and such.

    So can a game be art? I think yes.

  15. toaster_pimp
    April 2, 2012

    Also you’ve got to remember that what we commonly consider as ART now is what has been said to be art by certain institutions, like Art Galleries or Museums.

    This is a whole other question…is something Art because it is commonly considered by some important group to be so? well, most will say NO, but then you ask – ok, so what defines Art? and they will give you a list of examples that have been decided to be so by some group of people.

    The issue then is one of acceptance. A game, be it board game or video game or whatever, may have all the attributes that would be commonly ascribed to a work of art, and yet not be considered as one because of certain established beliefs.

    Look – what is considered Art is quite malleable. Remember that the impressionists, Monet, Degas, van gogh, were all pretty universally reviled and rejected in their own time. It wasn’t until quite some time afterward that their work was accepted as Art.

    So something like Journey, or Flower, or even Missile Command may be at some point in the future be considered as Art.

    If you want to make an argument that some game is Art, then you have to look at the underlying reasons why some other work is considered Art, and then show how the game has those same, or equal, qualities.

    But games can be art, i think – them being entertaining does not somehow automatically exclude them from that potential category.


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